POSSUM (a short story) by @JEricLaing

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by Eric Laing

Twitter: @JEricLaing
Website: HERE

I moved South, against the grain. Against the oncoming and fast-moving front of life, the tide of weathered hopefuls as thick as wet wind lapping off the sea. With each passing they clung to my coat. Bright beads, I shook them off. Such hope was for the living. I pressed on.

Some would say I fled. Some would whisper ‘coward.’ Many more would say ‘fool’ even as I waved iron at their ruddy cheeks and kicked past their bony and split-hoofed, tick-feeding cattle. But I moved down the map and made my way just the same. To hell with them and theirs and all those fine titles. They’d compose others over my corpse if I ever paused long enough for their opinions to settle on me along with the blue bottle flies.

Thankfully, I’d seen the last of their ragged lot some days gone by. Even more thankfully I had found my way deep within what they called ‘no man’s land.’ My land now. Let the cartographers pen my lanky frame into their legends.

All the same, I’d not shaken him. He was always over my shoulder, looming ever closer even in the brief pause for a pull from the canteen.

So I moved on, head-butting and headstrong, proud truant free from my father’s philosophy and fortune. His castle and its dandy trappings be damned. I didn’t need the misfortune of his fortune, to be under his thumb, indebted and in servitude. There’d be other claims to stake. Or, most likely, not. No matter. If I ran far enough there would be my mother’s hearth to keep me. Or her people’s fireside if it turned out she’d finally cast off life. No way to say with any certainty. I hadn’t seen the old dear in years. Should I make it, mine would be a homecoming of sorts. But not too surprising a landfall, I imagined. Father always accused me of being a mama’s boy. Father was right on so many counts. Yes, of all of my kin, hers was the only memory I kept by choice. Even so, I hated her as much as him. She’d never done me any wrong. Least ways, not too much. But even after she’d left him, she was yet his wife; I could never do right by either.

I pushed ever on, sand in boots, purple tongue swollen and fighting to leave my mouth and recline on my chin.

Making a spot of high ground, I stood on my knees, a petty little devil’s plaything with gun in one hand, the other beseeching the horizon. Things were finally making sense. Why wouldn’t God make Heaven so distant, so unobtainable? I saw then. Epiphanies abounded. Clever bastard.

Over there, in that far off paradise, the place such as me would never see, angels laughed, perhaps mocking, but joy-filled nonetheless. In death it was just as easy to hate the music of His instruments as love them. I knew that much now. I’d come to understand at least one facet of the grand scheme. A man is forever learning his mistakes after the fact, as though born with a second pair of eyes set square in his ass cheeks.

I stopped again, one of many more and more frequent delays of fate. But in this respite I stole a glance back over my passage. The ground I’d covered was whisky brown glass with the blades of cheat grass sprouting in bundles and huddled together as if under siege. And all was slick and alien, from the sky as broad as God’s back to the hellish earth He would not look upon. The sight of it sang an accompaniment to the angels. “Come back. Come back,” it sang. “Let your bones to dust here with us.”

It was my turn to laugh. More a bloody phlegm rattle, but the spirit of mirth was in it.

When my head cleared once more, I cupped a hand to my brow. Yes, the man who’d shot me was there. A black gnat on the rim of the dun horizon. He seemed to dart along that edge, to and fro, but I knew it merely a trick of my dying. And I swore he spoke, his voice cutting across the distance. “Custards for sale!” the gnat screeched. “Custards and cold, clear water! Come and get it!

What a tricky, tenacious bastard. The only appetite greater than mine was his. He’d covered a good swath to stay with me, to catch me up again. Looked like he’d stay on. See things through. The wound in my gut was healed as much as it ever would in the time left me, I imagined, but he was intent on making another. Probably a few. I turned away from him and considered my other horizon. My future. Pain.

So be it. I wouldn’t press on. Every race has its finish line. I would choose mine. The angels sang glorious and angry with their love for me as I counted the empty chambers of my revolver. Five. One for me. None for you. “Or maybe it’s the other way ‘round,” I said…perhaps aloud.

The distant gnat, now a fly and oh so soon swelling to a vulture’s silhouette, couldn’t have heard; I lacked his voice and he my ears. But maybe he did. Maybe those angels scrawled my scheming onto his eyes, abolishing the space between us, that vacuum which spared us momentarily from one another.

I threw my gun belt off into the long cheat grass and backtracked to be closer to my tormentor. As it was everywhere, the earth was hard where I finally laid down. I tucked my Colt inside my vest. I swear I could smell the sum of it--brass, powder, lead, wood, iron and oil--as I counted the emptiness above me. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing…. So I closed my eyes.

None for me. One for you. I might have spoken aloud. But probably didn’t. I heard his heart growing nearer to mine. Smelled his breath. One for you. I let slip one last time, and then grew still as death.